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American Indians and Horses

01 November 2011

This photo gallery provides a look at an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington that illuminates the enduring relationship between American Indian tribes and horses over the past five centuries.

Intro Panel

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Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Beaded horse mask (National Museum of the American Indian)

A Song for the Horse Nation — an exhibition at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington — illuminates the enduring relationship between American Indian tribes and horses over five centuries. Many Native Americans called horses “the horse nation,” thereby paying tribute to the animals’ status during the 19th century, when horses transformed travel, hunting, warfare, ceremony and family life.

This Lakota beaded headpiece was made on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota around 1904. The headpiece was worn by the chief’s horse during a Fourth of July parade.

Original Lakota beaded horse mask, ca. 1904
Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota
Seed beads, hide and sinew
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 1

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Credit: National Museum of the American Indian
Alt tag: Photograph of Crow Indian war pony painted with tribal symbols (Brady Willette/pony painting by Kennard Real Bird/NMAI collection)

The horse, which had become extinct in North America, was re-introduced by Christopher Columbus. Native people began to weave a close relationship with the animals, and by the late 1700s, virtually every tribe in the western United States was mounted. American Indian names that included the word “horse,” such as Crazy Horse or American Horse, signified strength of character.

Shown here is a photograph of a Crow war pony painted with tribal symbols. The photo was taken by Brady Willette, and the pony was painted by Kennard Real Bird.

Crow War Pony – 1
Fine art photography by Brady Willette
Pony painting by Kennard Real Bird (Crow)
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 2

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Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Tipi with painted figures of horses and people (National Museum of the American Indian)

This Lakota tipi painted with figures of horses greets visitors as they enter the exhibition A Song for the Horse Nation. Music, singing, jingling saddle bells and drumbeats recorded during a parade at the annual Crow Fair in southeastern Montana provide an evocative soundtrack.

Lakota tipi, ca. 1890–1910
South Dakota
Muslin, paint
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 3

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Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Shirt made of hide, painted with figures of horses and people, and decorated with beads, porcupine quills and locks of human hair and horsehair (National Museum of the American Indian)

Elaborate shirts were worn by esteemed Plains warriors, spiritual leaders and diplomats. This hide shirt is Cheyenne, circa 1865. It is decorated with beads, painted figures of horses and people, porcupine quills and locks of human hair and horsehair. It includes a figure of a lance-bearing warrior on a yellow horse, probably representing the shirt’s owner. The image shows that a zigzag line — symbolizing lightning — had been painted on the horse to provide it with power in battle.

Northern Tsitsistas/Suhtai (Cheyenne) shirt, ca. 1865
Collected between 1855 and 1861 at Fort Laramie, Wyoming, by
Thomas S. Twiss (1802–1871), U.S. Indian agent for the upper
Platte River
Hide, porcupine quills, glass pony beads, human hair, horsehair,
sinew, tree pitch/gum/paint
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 4

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Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Drum of rawhide and wood, with painted figure of lance-carrying warrior (National Museum of the American Indian)

Many tribes used drums to provide rhythm and ambiance to their singing, dancing or prayers. A drum often served as a medium for artwork, such as this Lakota drum, circa 1860. It portrays a lance-carrying warrior ready for battle, sitting astride a pinto pony whose tail is tied up with a red wool strap. The outside of the drum is painted red, a color often used for sacred or important objects.

Original Lakota painted drum, ca. 1860s
South Dakota or North Dakota
Pigment, rawhide, wood, wool cloth and sinew
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 5

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Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Elk hide robe painted with numerous figures of tipis, horses and people, including scenes of battle (National Museum of the American Indian)

Native peoples incorporated horses into their cultural and spiritual lives, and into their art. This Blackfeet elk hide robe is covered in painted figures of tipis, horses and people, including scenes of battle. The robe depicts Blackfeet encountering two different enemies – other tribes and bears. It was painted in the mid-1800s by Mountain Chief.

Piikuni (Blackfeet) elk-skin robe with painted decoration
By Mountain Chief, mid-1800s, Montana
Pigment and hide
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 6

Photo: G:\Press\FEATURES group\PHOTOS\Horse Exhibit\red fringed regalia.jpg

Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Red-beaded horse crupper with fringe (National Museum of the American Indian)

Horses as well as riders often wore elaborate regalia. This Crow horse crupper, circa 1885, displays beadwork in geometric and floral abstractions. Cruppers are used to prevent the saddle from slipping forward. At the wide end of this crupper is a strap that would be placed under the horse’s tail; the smaller end would be tied to the saddle. The beaded panels were draped over the rump of the horse. The round tabs are encircled with small tin cones that jingle when the horse moves.

Apsáalooke (Crow) horse crupper, ca. 1885
Montana
Seed beads, wool cloth, tin cones, hide, rawhide,
ribbon and cotton thread
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 7

Photo: G:\Press\FEATURES group\PHOTOS\Horse Exhibit\horse figure.jpg

Credit: National Museum of the American Indian

Alt tag: Long wooden stick with carved horse’s head (National Museum of the American Indian)

Most successful warriors had special bonds with their favorite horses, and often a warrior would create a wood carving in the animal’s image.

This dance stick made by No Two Horns, a Teton Lakota, around 1890, depicts a cherished horse. The red triangles indicate the horse’s six wounds. Although injured, the horse carried his owner to victory. An eagle feather and silver bridle suggest the horse’s importance. The scalp replica may pay homage to the horse or may testify to No Two Horns’ exploits.

Dance stick created by No Two Horns (Teton Lakota), ca. 1890
North Dakota
Eagle feathers, metal, wool cloth, pigment and harness leather
National Museum of the American Indian

Panel 8

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Credit: Courtesy photo

Alt tag: Elaborate beaded mask and beaded collar for horse (Courtesy of Randall and Teresa Willis)

Much contemporary American Indian art is focused on the horse, such as this elaborate mask of beads, silver, hide and horsehair made by artist Vanessa Jennings, a Kiowa from Oklahoma. Jennings is a renowned Kiowa-Apache–Gila River Pima regalia maker, clothing designer, cradle board maker and bead artist. She is a recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, America’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

Kiowa horse mask and martingale [collar], 2010
Oklahoma
Made by Vanessa Jennings (Kiowa, b. 1952)
Cut glass beads, silver, red and black wool cloth, brass
bells, hide and red dyed horse hair
Courtesy of Randall and Teresa Willis

Visitors to Washington have more than a year to see this exhibition, which opened October 29 and extends through January 7, 2013. See the NMAI website for more about the exhibition.

[Captions in this photo gallery were adapted from information in the exhibition catalog A Song for the Horse Nation: Horses in Native American Culture. Museum of Art, edited by George P. Horse Capture and Emil Her Many Horses]

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)